Two poets bring their unhappiness to Cleggan

Week III

The tragic early suicide of the poet Sylvia Plath was to haunt Richard Murphy - who turned down her request to remain with him at Clegan after she was abandoned by her husband Ted Hughes. Murphy, conscious that he was a stranger in a rural society that still very much represented a Catholic ethos, and which had accepted and befriended him, would, he feared, be unforgiven if a married woman lived in his house. Of course had he known the depth of her despair, that would drive her to suicide a few months later, he would have relented. But when he realised that Hughes had walked out on her, he panicked. He said that it would be better if she went too. As he watched her get into a car to be driven to Dublin, he felt mean, and partly to blame for her misery.

Sylvia was born in Boston, Massachusetts, on October 27 1932. Although she suffered from depression from time to time, she was already established as a poet when she came to Cambridge university on a Fulbright scholarship.

Ted was born in a west Yorkshire village on August 17 1930. He went from grammar school to Cambridge where at a launch party of a literary magazine, he first met Sylvia.

They sparked an immediate and an intense creative connection. Sylvia described Hughes as a ‘singer, story-teller, lion and world-wanderer with a voice like the thunder of God’.

Ted Hughes wrote to his sister Olwyn Hughes: I have met a first rate American poetess. She really is good. Certainly one of the best female poets I ever read, and a damn sight better than the run of good male. Her main enthusiasm at present is me, and she thinks my verses are as good as I think they are…’ They married in 1956, in a ceremony so hurried it seemed unlikely they would get a licence in time.

During their six-year marriage they were rarely separated for more than 12 hours at a time. They fought with violent conviction, drove each other creatively, and made love, Sylvia said, “like giants.” They went to America for a while. Sylvia taught at Smith College, her alma mater, before they both returned to London. They had two children, Frieda and Nicholas.

Both Ted and Sylvia were by then recognised poets, with Hughes rising spectacularly to be acknowledged as one of the most gifted poets of the 20th century. He was later appointed Poet Laureate, and after his death in 1998, commemorated at Poet’s Corner, in Westminster Abbey. Sylvia too was producing an impressive canon of work. Shorly before she came to Connemara in the late summer 1962, she finished her semiautobiographal novel The Bell Jar which describes the protagonist’s descent into mental illness.*

‘A boat and the sea’

Richard Murphy, who was also emerging as an significant poet, was making a living hiring out his converted Galway hooker, the Ave Maria, for fishing, or a pleasant day cruise among the Connemara islands. He also owned a small house in the village of Cleggan, The Old Forge, where he lived and let rooms. He was already on very friendly terms with Sylvia and Ted whom he met at several poetry readings and prize giving ceremonies in the UK. In the autumn of 1961 Sylvia delighted to hear his stories about the various characters who hired his boat, and their adventures together. The following July she wrote to him pleading that she desperately needed ‘a boat and the sea, and no squalling babies’. Could she and Ted come for a few days?

That fateful summer

Murphy was delighted. Such an unusual couple, and already making a splash in the difficult world of poetry publishing. He suggested that they come in the early autumn, when most of the visitors had gone away. They would have time to sail, fish, go for walks, and talk poetry well into the night.

Sylvia and Ted arrived on Thursday September 13 1962, but it was not the same couple that Murphy had known, and whose company he had enjoyed before.

Both Sylvia and Ted were going through a traumatic time, if for different reasons. Sylvia was dejected and vulnerable; while Ted was disinterested.

They had moved down to Devon after the birth of their second child, Nicholas, and offered their London home for rent. It was viewed by an American couple, the poet David Wevill and his wife Assia.

Physical descriptions of Sylvia focus on her energy, her vitality, her immaculate appearance. Undoubtedly she was attractive to men, although she did not always see or feel that herself. But she radiated her intelligence, passion and curiosity.

In looks alone she was eclipsed by Assia Wevill, who had an exotic beauty and ‘an animal magnetism not unlike Ted’s’. (Richard Murphy, when he met her later, described her ‘Babylonian beauty’ ).

Hughes was immediately struck by her, as she was with him. They began a red-hot affair. In June 1962, that fateful summer, Sylvia had a car accident, which was believed to have been a suicide attempt. It was not a good omen, and Murphy, as he went to greet them that September day, immediately sensed that not all was well.

Next week: A visit to Coole Park and WB Yeats’ Thoor Ballylee.

NOTES: *The poems of Sylvia Plath have a wide appeal, particularly among young people. Teenagers who won’t read poetry often find a kindred spirit in her poems. She is best known for two collections: The Colossus and Other Poems, and Ariel. She won a posthumous Pulitzer Prize for The Collected Poems, published 1981.

I am taking this week’s Diary from Emily Hourican’s article in the Irish Independent, September 24 2006, and from The Kick - A Memoir of the Poet Richard Murphy, republished by Cork University Press, in honour of the poet’s 90th birthday on August 6.

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